This article "Sunday Loving Feast," was published in Winnipeg Free Press, September 18, 1971, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Sunday, and the "very nice" feast is soon to begin. The Radha-Krishna Temple on Park Avenue is on the third floor of what was once the Pine's Bowling Alley; where the pin boys used to stand an altar has been erected for worshipping the one-foot-tall Jagannatha Deities. The ball-return gullies have been filled and levelled off; the floor is waxy brilliant. Where the bowlers used to throw for strikes, there is now a sumptuous throne reserved for the spiritual master, and on it a symbolic portrait of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Pradhupada, who introduced Bhakti-yoga to the West in 1966.
It's almost 4 PM and visitors are starting to trickle in. All must remove their shoes before entering the temple, one of several rules of etiquette. Religious texts must not be put on the floor, and before entering the ceremonial room of the temple, the devotees should remove their socks and bathe their feet in a plastic wash basin. And the feet should not be pointed toward the deities at the altar. Most devotees, as a rule, prostrate themselves on the floor when they enter the temple to render their humble obeisance before the Lotus feet of their spiritual master.
Each devotee has a function in the upkeep of the temple. There are administrators, cooks, a clean-up squad, a person in charge of incense, and so on. Much of the Sunday feast is prepared by the only girl living in the temple, Urvasi devi dasi a pujari - priestess - who was recently married to Sripati. Although most devotees remain celibate, when a Krishna marriage takes place it is considered of the highest order since the couple is dedicated to a spiritual life and to the service of Lord Krishna. Part of Urvasi's function is to look after the temple deities, and to bring prasadam - the food offering - to the altar.
It is very difficult for anyone to understand Krishna Consciousness by speculating about it mentally. One must experience the chanting and dancing. And so the Sunday feast is directed toward getting people to join in the ceremony.
The guests at this Sunday feast are a combination of regulars and first-timers who met the devotees during sankirtana and were invited to the temple. They are young hip types, intellectual types, junkie types, street children, lost, lonely souls and the usual Sunday freeloaders, who have come for the free prasadam. But even they are supposedly benefited; some of the most sincere Krishna devotees came originally looking only for a meal.
The "female vagabond" from Phillips Square has come along, as usual; and there is a young, dark-eyed man from India who, I'm told, has come several Sundays just to watch but doesn't get involved in the ceremony; and Harold Abrams, a student who spent a month with the devotees to write a paper on them and found himself so impressed "by their graciousness and nobility" that he returns often. In all, about 50 people are present in the temple, with its strong fragrance of incense.
With the guests sitting around him on the floor, most in cross-legged Buddha position, Sripati begins by stating that congregational chanting and the worship of Lord Krishna can help everyone whose lives are otherwise being wasted.
"If you turn away from the sun, then immediately there is the shadow of your own body. If we are not in the light, then automatically we are in the darkness. There is no in between."
And the recommended way for getting out of the darkness is to become "Krishna Conscious".
The guests are now led into the ceremonial room. There is dancing and chanting, followed by the aratrika (pronounced arteek) ceremony. This is the sacred ritual. The curtains of the altar are pulled back and Urvasi presents to the deities offerings of food, incense, flowers, a waving of handkerchief, peacock feathers and yak-tail whisks, and an offering of flames.
Aratrika actually takes place several times a day, with the first offering at 4.30 AM (the devotees wake every morning at 3.30 AM). No food may be eaten by the devotees unless at least a portion has been offered first to Lord Krishna during aratrika. Their diet is vegetarian - rice, dahl (a lentil soup), chapatis, vegetables, fruit, and in the evenings purls, vegetables, milk and the marble-sized shortbread called "Simplies", short for "simply wonderful".
Back in the main hall of the temple the Sunday guests are told that in a few minutes a "very nice" play will be performed (very nice is the most popular phrase, and may precede almost any noun). The plays, presented every week, are short parables based on Krishna's "unparalleled pastimes" as described in the Bhagavad-gita and other religious texts. They are acted out with the devotees wearing simple, homemade costumes. A bow and arrow may suggest an archer, a devotee with a flower curled around his ear may be Lord Krishna.
After the play, there is a short question period, and the devotees, through their training, are equipped to answer them all. This is followed by prasadam which is served on paper plates without cutlery (although forks are available if anyone asks), with the visitors sitting on the floor in groups of five or six. The devotees usually try to disperse themselves among the guests. But before taking prasadam, the devotee prostrates himself on the floor and recites a prayer.
The meal is light, sweet and satisfying. And then there is more dancing and chanting. This is kirtana - indoor celebration.
By now, anyone who hasn't started to clap his hands to the Hare Krishna rhythm, or chanted the transcendental words, must be a totally dour and gloomy soul. So slowly you find yourself being drawn in. The meal has been nutritious and makes you feel serene. The "female vagabond" is kicking up her heels. On the opposite side of the temple, those who are facing you all seem to be smiling blissfully. Harold Abrams and his girl friend are clapping and jerking their heads from side to side like dancers from Bali.
Now everybody is moving around the temple in a kind of conga line. Only a few proud individualists haven't joined in. After a while, there's only one left, oddly enough, the young man from India. He's standing next to me, and now he raises his hands and he claps, once, twice, three times, until he has the beat and his body starts swaying and a wide grin breaks out upon his previously drawn face, and he swirls around the temple, chanting the melodious Hare Krishnas and Hare Ramas, while someone is tinkling a bell, and the whole temple, now that everyone is doing it, is suffused with harmony and joy. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare. Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. All of us totally, sublimely ecstatic. All of us, brief though it may be, enjoying this escape from the material jungle. From maya.
As you joyfully dance past the Jagannatha Deities, as you clap your hands and perhaps, as the crescendo mounts, leap in the air with an ecstatic Ha-ray!, you can perhaps understand why so many people are doing it, and all you can think is that it's nice, very nice...